Tuesday, June 24, 2008

It begins!

June 24, 2008


            Today I began teaching! The past few days have been consumed with last minute preparations (along with the usual complications J ) Anyway, I have 16 wonderful 14-16 year olds and I couldn’t be happier. I have 14 boys: 4 Ahmeds, 2 Islams, 2 Ibrahims, 1 Muhammed, 1 Mustafa, 1 Hashak (pronounced Has-ak), 1 Bilal, 1 Beter (which is the English equivalent to Peter, there’s no “P” in Arabic so they replace that letter with a “B”), 1 Mina and I only have two girls; Haydi (pronounced somewhat like the English Heidi) and Sondos. They were so enthusiastic to start the class!


            It’s amazing how many things they were willing to put up with (and happily at that) that American teens their age would roll their eyes and refuse to do. To begin with, they walked in a line into the classroom. I started out with an introduction of myself and the class itself with literally no idea as to how much they were actually understanding. They understood well enough but they especially liked the “special” rule “No Arabic! Only English!” They enjoyed saying that to each other when one of them broke into accidental Arabic. Hey, it’s lame, but it made Arabic practically non-existent in the class.


            Afterwards, I decided to ask them if they were excited, which generated some blank stares. I figured they didn’t know the word “excited” so I explained it, and then we repeated as a class ,“I am excited!” They found this pretty funny too, so we said it throughout the class. They always clapped after repeating something together.


            We played a few name games, which they loved. From what I’ve been told Egyptian schools are not quite as interactive as American schools, so I suppose they’re glad to do something different for a change. Although, I am kind of an anomaly-of-a-teacher, so maybe they were just excited for that aspect. First we stood in a circle and bounced a ball to each other and saying the name of who we bounced it to but then we played the game where you’re supposed say your name, a verb that starts with the first letter of your name and then go around the circle adding each person’s name to the chain as you go. We nixed the verb and just said names so I started by saying “Julie” then the next kid said “Julie, Ahmed” and the next said “Julie, Ahmed, Ibrahim” and so on. Three of the Ahmeds ended up standing next to each other which was pretty funny.


            I’m calling my class “Trip to the US”  so I’m hoping to teach on a state to state basis, starting with New York. I’m hoping to cover different aspects of a number of states—traditions, attractions, and general vocabulary that fits with each area. I had a slideshow of pictures from New York City to show, but they had a hard time visualizing where the city was. They kept asking if the pictures were from Paris. They had a bizarre fascination with Paris for some reason. One of the Ahmeds asked where Paris was on the map of the US and another kid asked if the Eifel Tower was in NYC. Maybe their schools focus a lot on Paris…? Anyway, they liked the pictures but it took them a little while to orient themselves to the fact that it was called New York City and it was in the US.


            Anyway, they loved the idea of the Statue of Liberty and thought it was so cool that you had to take a boat to go see her. After the slideshow (and all the questions about Paris, haha) I told them to draw a picture of something they had just seen. I mean, they’re almost too old for pictures but I just couldn’t see how four hours of straight vocabulary and grammar could be beneficial so I decided to force them to regress a little bit. They protested, good heartedly, at first but they warmed up to the idea eventually. We ended up with some really good pictures of the Statue of Liberty, big buildings, and a few abstract cityscapes (sort of). Then they wrote a sentence on the back of the picture, something to the effect of “I like New York City” or “There are tall buildings in New York City.” They learned how to say Statue of Liberty, which I think is kind of  a big deal. “Statue” is such a weird word.


            Then we made “Passports to the US,” which ended up being a better activity that I had originally imagined. I actually stole the original idea from my sorority, Delta Phi Epsilon, so if you ladies are reading, thanks! (We had DPE ‘passports’ while we were pledging, similar to the ones I’m making). Anyway, the project made them listen to what I was saying but they could watch what I was doing as well, so there was a simple connection of words and meanings. They learned fold, cut, triangle, share and all of the usual cooperation words. They liked writing the title on the cover (I explained how English books open opposite to the way Arabic books do) and they liked filling out their name, age, etc. I was worried they’d dismiss it as a dumb craft project that they were too old for, but they ended up liking it. They kept bringing them up to me so that I could see them every time we finished a step.


We took a few breaks during the course of the class, during which they could go to the cafeteria to buy snacks and cans of pop or whatever. They kept bringing me things and wanting me to share what they had. It was very sweet. I ended up with 5 Little Debbie cakes, a bag of chips, and a can of 7 up, plus a pile of things they wanted to share with me. It sounds dumb, but I was genuinely touched by their friendliness.


We wrapped the day up with “Life is a Highway” by Rascal Flatts since our class is about traveling. I’m not sure they really made that connection, but they liked the idea of American music. One of the kids kept asking over and over, “This Michael Jackson? This Michael Jackson” and could NOT deal with the fact that the song wasn’t his. I guess I’m going to have to buy some itunes so he can get his fill of Michael Jackson.


I realize this entry is basically a play-by-play of the class itself, but it’s more for my benefit I suppose. It’ll be good to remember this day when I’m looking back on this trip. Those kids are definitely why I’m here, though, as trite as it may be. I was started to loose sight of that after 11 days here with nothing to do but sightsee. This place is entirely overwhelming without a purpose.


I’m excited for what’s to come with these kids. They knew a lot less than I thought they would, but in a way that’s going to provide ME with a better teaching experience. I have to forge my own territory with the things I want to teach; I can’t rely on their already huge vocabularies. They are very intelligent kids, though, and they know a lot. They could definitely out-speak any high school senior in a battle of foreign language.

Leave me a comment or facebook message if you think of any great activities, because I’m definitely going to run out at some point. I’d love to hear what you think!

June 21, 2008


Earlier today we decided to once again brave the craziness of Khanak aheleli (the biggest open air market in Cairo). We actually didn’t even have a chance to get overwhelmed because as soon as our taxi pulled up to a market a young Egyptian man asked us if we were Americans and offered to help us. He was wearing an American flag on his shirt and spoke very good English, so we figured why not. He took us all around to his friend’s shops but we ended up with pretty good deals in the end. I spent about 30 US dollars and ended up with quite a pile of merchandise. It’s amazing how the prices differ from the hugely touristy spots in the market and then those of the beaten track. Naturally, Mido took us to the lesser known areas because he’s a native. He also said that his family also owned a business there so he practically grew up in the market.


Then this evening Sam and I went adventuring again in Dokki. She’s set on finding the supposed Starbucks that is somewhere around here and I’ve just been going along even though I’m not really dying for a cup of coffee that isn’t instant. A side note on coffee: Egyptians drink a lot of a mix called 3-in-1, which is a blend of instant coffee granules, milk, and sugar. It’s delicious. I don’t drink much coffee at home, though, so to the average coffee drinker it might not be the best.


Now, onto the food we’ve been eating. I feel like I eat so much more healthily here than I do at home. I suppose because so few of the usual junk foods are available. Additionally, fruits and vegetables are cheaper than the imported goodies, so we’ve been directing our attention more to the fresh produce. I feel like I’m on the Mediterranean Diet with all the pitas, fruit, olives, vegetables I’ve been eating. It feels good, actually! I should probably just stay here. Our current favorite meal has been a mix of tomatoes, yellow peppers, onions, cucumbers, oil and vinegar. Sometimes we add chickpeas or some other beans. It’s quite delicious. We’ve also been eating a lot of eggs and cheese for more protein.


Now that I’ve bored the world with eating habits (although I’m sure some are inteterested), I end this entry.



Saturday, June 21, 2008

June 19, 2008


I can literally feel  the day on my face as I sit here typing this—the dirt of a long day out and about in Cairo. We woke up this morning to the sound of multiple hammers beating on what sounded like solid rock right outside the wall closest to our heads as we sleep. This began at 8 am. It would start for a few minutes then abruptly start and begin again. Eventually we just got up because there was no use with fighting with sleep with that much noise going on, so we headed to the office. It was our last day of curriculum planning! Orientation with the students will be on Sunday.


We decided to go on an adventure in Zamalek (the rich, hip section of Cairo where most Europeans live and where British colonizers spent most of their time) after we got finished. It’s a pretty long walk there; I’d estimate we walked about 2 miles by the time we reached our destination. We stopped in a western coffee shop, which was nice for a change. Sam and I ordered iced coffees but when the man at the counter told her that she owed him 25 she just stood there with her wallet half open, staring at him. Then she looked at me, back at the wallet and the money in her hand, and then back at the guy. Meanwhile the guy is saying, “You speak English, right? Right? 25, tweeeentttty fiiiivvvveee.” I realized what was happening because it happens to me all the time here so I just leaned over and casually said, “5 dollars Sam. He’s giving you the price in pounds.” It was one of those moments where you find yourself in a familiar situation and are completely thrown off by something minor. The money thing is kinda bizarre; it’s ironic, though, that some of the prices here in pounds are accurate to the price in dollars in the US. 5 Egyptian pounds (or gnay as they call it) is about 1 US dollar.  I bought a package of cookies tonight for 6.50 LE (Egyptian pounds). That’s not too far off of what we’re paying or what we will be paying if gas keeps going up. But I digress


Anyway, we were looking for a clothing store for some unknown reason, I guess just to have a reason to go out. We walked in so so many circles, but we eventually made it there. What a victory! When everything in an ordinary day is a struggle, it’s huge when you can navigate your way to a store where you don’t even buy anything anyways.

 We decided to go meet up with some friends later that night, which was really fun. Our ride home, though, was very interesting.

The driver we found was ridiculous. He first asked if we were Russian, which was bizarre. We explained we were from America (for some reason they don’t get it when you call it the US) and he started yelling, “I love Amer-ka! Amer-ka iss good!” The rest of the ride consisted of him repeating how much he loved us and how we were all friends. He also threw some Italian phrases in, especially when other cars drove by. He then started teaching us the ‘arabee’ words for EVERYTHING in the car. And our supposed love for each other. And our supposed friendship. He also couldn’t deal with the fact that we needed to go to Dokki (where our apartment is); he kept driving past it and at first took us to a completely different part of the city. At the end of it all he told us he was crazy and explained that crazy in Arabic is “ma-goon.” The ride ended with mutual exchanges of magoon! magoon! He apparently had a great time, because he didn’t want to let us pay for the ride. Eventually I convinced him to let me pay but we did get his number in case we need a driver for anywhere. We’ll see if we call him again.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

June 17, 2008

Today we went back to the office to work on curriculum plans. They showed us around the facilities and to the books that are available. Sam and I sat down, after the tour, and worked for a  few hours on the idea that we’ve been formulating. I’ve been sort of playing with an idea of “Trip to the US.” I wanted to make passports to the US with each kid’s picture, personal facts, and then a page for each of the states we covered. The list we came up with included states like Pennsylvania (obviously), New York, Arizona, Florida, California and so on. Personally, in my class I’m going to try to cover a state each class, beginning with a song appropriate for that region. 

Tonight Aminah cooked a lovely dinner and invited some of her amazing Egyptian friends over for a little dinner party. We ended up with 7 people total—me, Sam, Aminah, Mohammed, Ali, Ibrahim, Sameh. We ate dinner and had a really good time. Then we decided to go watch the Austria/Germany soccer game in a flat that the guys own. 

This concept of the flat, though, is a strange one. Egyptian men live with their families until they are married, but marriages require that the couple (meaning the man) needs to have a fully furnished apartment. This is very difficult, I guess because things are expensive on the salaries that the men make, so they end up living with their families into their mid twenties and sometimes late twenties or even longer. This leaves them with little time to chill with friends so they often rent out rooms to watch tv with friends or play playstation. It's a interesting solution to the problem of privacy. These guys own one of these places to rent rooms so we went there to watch the game. Germany won, but only two of the people watching were happy (I was neutral).

Afterwards, the guys wanted to go smoke sheesha (flavored tobacco), so Aminah, Sam, and I got in Ali’s car along with Mohammed. Ali drives like a maniac, but it was so much fun riding in the car with him. Lots of squealing tires, ebrake, and fitting the car into places that it should not have fit. It was really fun though; we were all laughing hysterically. 

We said goodbye to Aminah tonight, which means we're on our own now. Tonight we had so much fun; I honestly hope that she and I are able to stay friends and that our paths cross again.

I know this trip is slowing changing me, most definitely. I know that once I head back to home and to school I’ll be much more outgoing because I’ve been thrown in this situation and forced to figure it out. I’m not so awkward around people now that I’m here. 

June 18, 2008

Today was definitely a challenge, to say the least. We woke up late, but with still enough time to make it to the office where we were to continue to work on our curricula.

Today has just been a day of struggles all day long. The back door wouldn’t lock from the inside for most of the day so we had to go outside and walk around the house to leave. Then there’s the constant fight with the internet. It’s obnoxious to have to walk to a cafĂ©, then ask the waiter for an access code, then fight with logging in, then reconnecting every time you lose the connection. It sounds trite, but when you’re in a country constantly fighting with everything around you because it’s in a different script and tounge, you just want to sit down at your computer and e-mail your mom. Then there’s the issue of all the web pages showing up in Arabic…and ironically you have to read in Arabic to change them to English, but I digress.

As for the rest of the day’s misadventures, we decided after work that it would be a GREAT idea to go to the massive open market. It started out well, we found a cab etc. and managed to explain to him where we wanted to go. The problem occurred when we made it there. The market was completely insane. The driver left us off in a relatively tourist oriented area but I followed Sam and we ended up in a very, very, very local sector of the market. It was completely overwhelming. Trucks of eggs, men on motorcycles, sheep and other animais, and people everywhere, all smashed into these tiny little alleyways that were only about 10 feet wide. We walked confusedly for like half an hour, getting further and further into the mess of the alleys and shops. 

Meanwhile, men and boys everywhere are harassing us as they always do, which is uncomfortable on a crowded street but in an enclosed area it’s even worse. Anyway, after a really long time we managed to get out of the rough area and reorient ourselves as to where we were. It was pretty traumatizing.

Now a note on men’s attention; this mainly consists of catcalling. It’s not necessarily threatening, although I suppose it could be, it’s just a way of expressing curiousity, perhaps? The two of us are a flash of white in a sea of dark skin and I suppose that most of these people really see very few westerners. It doesn’t make their attention appropriate or ok, but it makes it easier to stomach. Usually, most men watch you pass; some say nothing. Others, say something friendly like, “Welcome to Egypt.” On an average trip to the store I’ll hear maybe 20 of these greetings, but they go no further than that. Women even say this; they’re just being friendly. Some men, however, think they’re funny so they say, “Welcome to Nicaragua” or “Welcome to Alaska,” which, as you can imagine is really not that funny.

Then there are the semi-creepier ones who say something along the lines of “Beautiful, beautiful” and either whistle or make this weird cicada sounding noise at you. The last kind approach you either proposing to you or asking, “You want give me kiss?” I’ve not felt threatened yet, though, and from the way things seem I don’t think I will. It’s just reallllllly annoying when you can’t walk anywhere in peace. Even men in cars will slow down to tell you that you are beautiful or they’ll honk their horn and smile. 

With that I end this entry. Sayid, our boab or landlord, is outside on our deck watering the lawn for the second time today. He’s quite efficient. He even washes our deck furniture. What a guy.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Now, from the beginning

I've been keeping track of my experiences thus far until I could figure out this complicated internet issue. Well, the internet has yet to be fully resolved, but I'm currently sitting in a cafe that will work. It's loud, due to the soccer game going on, but I'll survive. This will end up being a massive diatribe of the events so far, but after I post all of them I can start keeping this daily (or at least semi daily)

Now, to begin on the 12th, when I first arrived.

June 12, 2008

I began my acquaintance with Cairo by climbing into a taxi, unlabeled as such, with my program director, another volunteer and a driver named Akmed. We darted through the mess of cars that is Cairo traffic and Akmed blared “Material Girl” (of all things) with all the windows down. That particular song seemed so wrong for that moment, but I guess in a way it works. I think Egypt is trying to catch up to the attitude portrayed in that song because it sees the rest of the world enjoying such materialism. They deserve these comforts as well, don’t get me wrong, but this new idea is mixing with the old in a bizarre way. I guess that’s the way it goes in all developing nations—mosques surrounded by other old buildings on one corner and vendors selling embellished bras and panties from makeshift tables on the next.

Earlier, on the plane, I sat next to a small, middle-aged Egyptian man who told me about the 22 days he had just spent in the US studying American medicine. His name was Magid and he was a pediatrician who specialized in the repair of cleft palates. He was in love with Americans. I’d been briefed on the possible negativity I might encounter being an American, but this guy was the 100% anomaly to that concept. He told me about how he thought the Americans he had met were so considerate and kind I couldn’t help but feel a little bit patriotic. I’m glad that we all don’t seem like the tyrants that we’re made out to be.

He told me he wanted to marry an American woman, which I later realized was a hint of sorts after my program director explained how frequently Egyptians propose to Americans. He gave me his e-mail address and phone number about 2 minutes after sitting down and told me, “I take you to pyramids and big dinner.” He then helped me however he could for the rest of the 10 hour flight, offering me gum, opening my tray table for me, and throwing away my garbage. He wasn’t creepy, though, as surprising as it may be to say that; he was just being nice.

All of the Egyptians that I’ve met so far have been (for the most part) this friendly. One of the men in the hostel, Farek, has taught himself all of the English that he knows, which I find to be incredibly impressive. He drives a taxi, drawing his customers mainly from the pool of individuals staying in one of the 5 or so rooms. He told us that he would hear a word in English, write in down in Arabic characters, and then ask someone what it meant. For example, he cited the word “because,” explaining how he came to its meaning and then using it in a sentence; “He is shouting because I drive with him crazy.”

Speaking of crazy drivers…there are no rules on the streets of Cairo. My one taxi ride so far has proven this fact. Drivers beep if someone cuts them off, or lets them in, or almost runs over them, or, as my program director joked, if they want a lighter. There are so many different kinds of cars; it’s a little bit funny. Basically, any type of ridiculously tiny vehicle exists in droves here. No SUVs, which is refreshing. Gas is a problem here too, though; apparently gas stations run out of gas every day forcing people to sometimes drive to multiple stations before they can fill up. I’m not sure of the prices; I need to learn Arabic numbers.

Obviously these are the sights of a person who has spent a mere 9 hours here, but these first impressions line up with what I’ve been told to expect. I knew the streets would be dirty and the drivers insane. I knew that the people would be over-accommodating to a point of almost fault and I also knew that some, some, people would love Americans.

So overall my experience has been lovely. I’m exhausted but I’m not going to let myself nap, going off of the advice of the other volunteers who got here earlier than me. I want to be able to sleep through the night. If this entry ends up being drool on a page, blame my beginning at 5 am on June 11th, sleeping for 5 hours on a plane next to a talkative Egyptian, and continuing through now. (I arrived in Cairo at 3am EST).

June 13, 2008

Today was a day of intense bonding of the team. We began in Coptic Cairo, looking at churches and the one synagogue in the area as well as the Coptic Museum; these were all beautiful. We lunched in Tahir Square on falafel and more juice (I’m definitely partial to the mango). Then back to the hotel (The New President) for a bit and exploring the surrounding area. We met two other Americans, a couple, who were making their way around the world (literally). They were coming off a 13 European country stint and were only visiting Egypt for a few days.

We had dinner at some loud relatively lame restaurant where I got a mediocre tomato and mozzarella salad. Then we walked to the Nile where we paid 10 gnay for a river boat ride. What a show that turned out to be. We climbed into this already rickety sail boat and ended up waiting for the driver for a good ten minutes. When we finally pulled out the current took us immediately which at the time seemed like a very good thing. As we drifted closer to the bridge nearest to us we started to get a little nervous. All of a sudden the captain starts freaking out and we look up to where he’s directing most of his anger and see that the mast of the sailboat had caught itself on the ceiling of the bridge. The boat begins to rapidly sink to the right (where I’m sitting) while the left pops into the air. We were sure that the boat was just about ready to capsize so the two of us sitting on the sinking side jumped over with the other volunteers.

I was pretty much convinced that at least some of us were going to end up in the cruddy, polluted Nile to be eaten by some strange waterbourne illness. Anyway, when our watery graves begin to look imminent, we heard a huge crack. The mast had snapped from the pressure. Meanwhile, one of the larger but passengerless boats was making its way to our aid. We assumed that the boat was coming to get us but when it pulled up it’s workers tied our boat to theirs and started pulling it out. As they drug us, though, they somehow managed to catch the remaining corner of the mast on the edge of the pillar holding the bridge up. The boat kept pulling, snapping that section of the mast as well and again threatening us with the possibility of a swim. This boat pulled us further out and even though we were sure that we would just return to the shore, the driver wasn’t about to give us a refund. So, with our little broken boat and our embarrassed captain we sat, almost completely still, in the middle of the Nile until our promised half hour was through. We then started making our way back. The current, however, had other plans and began dragging us again toward the bridge. This time we rammed a parked boat and somehow used it to drag ourselves to the resting place. We ended up with a great story to tell but a traumatizing 45 minutes.

One final side note/funny story…one of the men in the hostel, Ahmed, is very much in love with himself and definitely suave with the ladies. When I asked him today if I was saying his name right he said, “I never knew my name was so beautiful until I heard you say it.” I was warned about this type of Egyptian boy, so it was hilarious when this warning came true.

June 14, 2008

Today was mostly consumed by orientation, which was very helpful. We learned useful Arabic phrases and got a general idea of what to expect from our classes. We discussed the sites and their differences and how to deal with problems in the classroom. It’s hard to believe that we all just met and in just a day (or a few hours for 2 of the volunteers) we have to separate into our different sites. We’re planning to visit each other already, though, so hopefully we’ll get to see each other just a little bit more.

Tonight we rode horses near the pyramids, which I believe I can honestly say was one of the best experiences of my life. After the 7 of us piled into 2 cabs, one with the familiar Farek and the other with a new driver, we drove the 30ish minutes to Giza. From the highway you could see the faint outlines of the pyramids. We sat there looking at them from the car, but in the typical Cairo way the moment was interrupted by an angry driver laying on their horn. Gotta love the psychotic traffic here.

The pyramids are located a short distance from a small cluster of old buildings built in the way you would usually envision Cairo--long alleyways, tan, squat buildings, lots of people congregating amongst the horses and camels they use to make a living. When we arrived at the stable, a very charismatic man greeted us with excessive attention and shuffled us inside for an “orientation” of sorts. This ended up being a bargaining process of deciding how many hours, how much, and so on. An hour was decided and we were shuffled back outside where the slightly emaciated but relatively well-kept horses and one camel stood waiting.

After situating ourselves, we began walking down the alleys toward the place we would begin trotting in the desert. When we were hardly out for 5 minutes one of the horses that was being taken back to the stable started rearing and bucking like crazy and I began to think that horses were not such a great idea. The Egyptian men obviously understood that scared Americans would want to get off their horses if they thought that they would act like that one, so they quickly got it under control.

Once out in the wider streets the horses began to trot and when we hit the sand the horses started to pick up speed. After this continued for a little, while we heard the guides shouting “Yall ah, yall ah!” which means “hurry up, hurry up now!” and the horses took off into gallops. When I steadied myself enough to forget the fear of falling off, I started to fall into the rhythm of the horse and began to realize the actuality of the situation I was experiencing—galloping through the Sahara on an Egyptian horse, surrounded by the pyramids. I couldn’t help but laugh and scream as we went along and a lot of the other volunteers had the same reaction. It was just overwhelming happiness—there’s no other way to describe it.

Eventually, we reached a highpoint where a shanty stood with places to leave the horses. To the right stood the massiveness of Cairo and to the left, the massiveness of the pyramids. As we stood there, the call to prayer began and I realized that I could experience little else that was so Egyptian. The old and the new collided there, even though the experience would be labeled as a touristy one. That view and the feeling of galloping on that horse were worth this whole trip.

It sounds trite, but I feel myself morphing into something, someone, different. Maybe not an entirely different person, because something more intense than a ride in the desert would need to happen for that, but even my few experiences here thus far have definitely made an impact. I feel like the work that I’ve potentially chosen for myself fits me and that I can do it after all. I can leave my family, I can begin to feel comfortable in a different culture, I can begin to learn a new language (slowly). I always knew that I loved these things and loved learning about them but I always doubted my ability to put them into practice. Perhaps I did choose the right major, after all, but that remains yet to be seen.

I know that my ability to be comfortable here can be mainly attributed to our program director, Aminah. She has completely taken the volunteers under her wing and made sure that we’re learning and will be able to function when she leaves. I wasn’t so sure about the student run aspect of LE, but I realize now that only another student could connect with us as well as she has. She really does know Cario, teaching skills, and Arabic because she’s worked in and with all of these entities. Now, she’s passing that along to people who NEVER (at least I never) would have been able to do something like this without their support.